Saturday, July 13, 2013
Hey! Did you go to church this weekend?
Not that many people do. Not so many years ago it was the right thing to do. The only question around here was which church, and on what day? When the question was asked, as it often was, “Are you Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish?” an answer was expected. There were other possibilities, but they were unimportant.
That’s no longer true. For many people today, it’s hard to imagine what good it would do to go to church. It’s not a matter of believing or not believing in God. You don’t need church for that. “The people I want to meet are probably not at church.” “My career and social standing don’t depend on which church I go to, or if I go at all.” “I’ve got better ways to waste my time on a weekend morning than wasting it for an hour or two in a church.” “As far as I can tell they are all a bunch of judgmental hypocrites. I may be one too, but I don’t have to make it worse by joining them.”
So what exactly is the purpose of church? I think all people of God, and especially we Christians, need to think about that. Why would someone who believes in God, or at least a god, and whose life gets along just fine without going to church, ever want or need to go to church?
Let me offer a few thoughts for discussion. The ancient Celtic Christians talked a lot about thin places, places where the dividing line between earth and heaven, the profane and the holy, the realm of the human and the realm of God, came together in ways that did not happen elsewhere. In these special thin places one could enter into the intimacy of communion with God Almighty. I think that is what church is supposed to be — a thin place.
For we Christians, our various forms of worship are intended to provide an environment in which we join together in expectation of a thin place where, in communion with God, we can be nourished in body, mind and soul for the journey ahead. Not all forms of worship work for all. As an Episcopalian, I am deeply moved by our liturgy and the weekly celebration of the Eucharist (The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, The Mass). It always draws me closer to God, and often becomes a thin place. A former colleague, who belonged to a church where loud music, Bible thumping sermons, and rousing choruses of congregational “Amens” were the rule, thought our services were so quiet and boring that God probably fell asleep. I thought hers were so noisy and chaotic that God could not be heard. We each had our thin places, and they were different. We each agreed that you cannot enter into the intimacy of communion with God Almighty and fail to be nourished in life changing ways.
But do you need church for that? Can’t you find a thin place on your own? The golf course, for instance, or maybe a favorite fishing hole? We have several thousand years of testimony from those who have done just that, and every time, every single time, the intimate encounter with God has called them out of solitude and into the company of others searching for God in their lives. God, it seems, keeps calling us not only into communion with him, but also into a greater communion with each other. Whenever and wherever we gather for that reason, it is called church.
If you are not a church-goer, think about giving it a shot. Look for the thin place, but give it time, and don’t be shy about asking for directions.
If you are a regular church-goer, ask yourself whether your church provides an environment in which thin places can make themselves known?
If you are a pastor, do you open the door to thin places, or do you keep them closed so they don’t get in the way of your sermons?
Thin places generate thick questions.
The Rev. Steven Woolley is retired rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He serves at Grace Church in Dayton as well as chaplain of the Walla Walla Fire Department. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at email@example.com.